[Last updated January 2016]
Have you checked your passport’s expiration date lately? With summer travel coming into full spring, you might want to do a quick double check well before your next trip. And if you do need to renew, as with most formal procedures, there are important rules to keep in mind. Here, six facts to brush up on to avoid having your travel plans derailed.
1. Mail renewal is best -- but it's not always available. The easiest way to renew a passport is via mail, since it only requires a trip to the post office. Simply print a form from the U.S. Department of State and paperclip your photo to the application, along with your old passport and a money order or check. The check must include your full name and date of birth.
That said, you may need to apply in person under a few circumstances: if you were younger than 16 when you received your last passport; if your current passport is damaged; or if you haven’t renewed in more than 15 years. Keep in mind that some post offices require an appointment for this service. "Passport acceptance facilities" where you can renew in person include post offices, libraries, and other offices -- but they might require appointments.
2. Beware of passport processing services. There are agencies that claim to renew your passport faster than the post office or an authorized agency, but this is likely untrue. The services, which are not associated with the government, have to go through the same processes of submitting that DS-82 form by mail or in person (see #4) just like you, and they also charge a fee. So you're essentially paying extra for someone to process the application. We suggest saving your money if you can carve out the time to handle it yourself.
3. Expedited passports can be costly (but possible). Frequent travelers loathe to turn in their passport because last-minute trips can arise. However, there are certain countries where you need at least six months' validity and/or four blank visa pages in order to visit. By mail, the basic turnaround is four to six weeks, with a $110 fee for adults. Need it faster? By mail, you can get it in three weeks or less for $170 -- plus extra costs for sending paperwork via express mail. You can opt to pay $14.95 to have the new passport delivered overnight once it's processed. An eight-business day turnaround is also possible for $170, but you must provide information that you’re traveling within two weeks. Important reminder: You must write “EXPEDITED” on your envelope or risk a delay.
4. True emergencies and same-day renewals can be handled. In last-minute situations, it is possible to get a new passport a day or even the same day, also for $170. Your best bet would be to make an appointment at a passport agency. They take walk-ins, too, but you can expect a wait. In a "life or death" travel emergency situation, the Department of State asks travelers to call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 during business hours, or 202-647-4000 after 5 p.m. EST, weekends, and holidays.
5. Taking a proper photo saves time. The specs required for your 2x2 passport photo are important. For starters, the image must have your head taking up between 50 to 69 percent of the space, from top to chin. (The Department of State has a nifty cropper tool to help you scale your photo, or you can just go to the pros rather than setting up the shop at home.) You can wear only prescription glasses, and no scarves or hats are allowed, unless for religious reasons. If you don't meet all of these standards, you will be required to send in a new photo.
6. Extra pages will be eliminated. The standard passport comes with 28 blank pages for stamps and visas. Frequent international fliers can currently also request a 52-page book at no additional cost or pay $82 for an extra 48 pages. But come December 31, 2015, there will be two changes: You won't be able to get those extra pages -- though standard books will all have 52 pages.
7. It's better to renew sooner than later if it expires in 2016 or 2017. Back in 2007, a law went into effect that required U.S. citizens to present a passport when traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda -- resulting in the issuing of 18 million passports. Fast forward nearly 10 years later, the State Department is urging those with a passport expiring in 2016 or 2017 to do it now since it's expecting a flood of renewals from those who applied for a passport a decade ago. Because of the influx, the renewal process may take six weeks or even longer.